How thousands of Arabs are getting into hi-tech

5,000 Arab engineers are employed today, up from 300 in 2007.

Karim Fanadka studied computer science and mathematics but struggled to find work in the hi-tech industry – until an Arab friend was hired and he got his foot in the door (photo credit: Courtesy)
Karim Fanadka studied computer science and mathematics but struggled to find work in the hi-tech industry – until an Arab friend was hired and he got his foot in the door
(photo credit: Courtesy)
He didn’t know anyone.
Hailing from a northern Israeli-Arab village, Karim Fanadka wanted to break into hi-tech but had no connections – until one friend got hired.
“Every day I was calling my friend [at Amdocs]. So finally he said, ‘Leave me alone. I will arrange something – an interview.’ And I got a job there.”
Today, Fanadka, 32, works at Micro Focus (formerly run by HP), where he supervises some 50 engineers at an office in Yehud. He’s been in hi-tech for 10 years and when he started, in 2007, there were only some 300 Arab engineers in the industry. Today, there are an estimated 5,000 Arab computer programmers and software engineers employed across Israel.
He also volunteers with a group called Tsofen, which seeks to get more Israeli-Arabs into hi-tech, visiting high schools and encouraging Arab pupils to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). “We need to help each other. We [Arabs] are a small community and we don’t help each other enough,” he said.
While only three percent of the hi-tech workforce nationwide is Arab, more than 20% of Israelis identify as such. That’s where Tsofen comes into the picture, and it seeks to bridge the gap and get more underrepresented minorities into the lucrative and demanding profession.
Young Israeli-Arab entrepreneurs often face greater challenges finding work at start-ups – many fledgling firms employ only a handful of engineers, mostly buddies who met in the army intelligence or the prestigious unit 8200. Only about 90 start-ups in Israel are run by Arabs – some 40 of them in the northern Arab city of Nazareth alone – while there are at least 5,000 start-ups nationwide.
That often leaves multinational companies, which have affirmative action policies that prioritize diversity, as the best way to break into the industry.
“It’s such a role model for young people, boys and girls, to see the Microsoft sign in Nazareth, see hi-tech in their neighborhood, in their backyard. It’s a huge change,” said Hans Shakur, an entrepreneur and Tsofen consultant, commenting on how MNCs like Broadcom and Amdocs have opened up shop in Nazareth, with further hi-tech industrial parks planned. “You cannot imagine what you cannot see.”
In terms of getting hired, many employers may prefer former soldiers who gained battled-tested skills in the field over Arab college graduates who offer classroom knowledge. Other problems arise from skeptical – and sometimes racist – interviewers who are not used to interacting with Arabs professionally or personally.
“There are so many obstacles,” said Avital Yanovsky, business development director for Tsofen. “If somebody did 8200 for six years in the army, of course you can’t compare it to someone who only got experience in university or a mentorship program. And most of the Israeli hi-tech is in the center of Israel while most of the Arab workforce is in the north.”
Even right-leaning politicians who may squabble with Arab politicians are jumping on the bandwagon, with Education Minister Naftali Bennett receiving more funding for computer science programming in Arab schools as a way to grow and strengthen the Israeli economy.
Israel is expected to face a shortage of some 10,000 hi-tech employees in the next decade, according to a report last month by the Israel Innovation Authority, compelling the country to tap into its untapped Arab and ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, workforce. The Innovation Authority and private groups also provide special subsidies to start-up entrepreneurs who hail from both those sectors.
“[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu knows and understands that there is no future for the Israeli economy without the Arabs and haredim,” said Abed Kanaaneh of the left-wing, co-existence NGO Sikkuy – criticizing the prime minister for his right-wing rhetoric against Arabs. “You can say a lot about him, but on economics, he knows what to do.”